“I am a sinner. This is the most accurate definition. It is not a figure of speech, a literary genre. I am a sinner… The best summary, the one that comes more from the inside and I feel most true is this: I am a sinner whom the Lord has looked upon.” —Pope Francis, interview with Father Antonio Spadaro, S.J., editor in chief of La Civiltà Cattolica, the Italian Jesuit journal, released on September 19, and immediately provoking considerable public controversy, in answer to the question “Who is Jorge Mario Bergoglio [now Pope Francis]?”
“Not only do we only know God through Jesus Christ, but we only know ourselves through Jesus Christ; we only know life and death through Jesus Christ. Apart from Jesus Christ we cannot know the meaning of our life or our death, of God, or of ourselves.” —Blaise Pascal (1623-1662), Pensees #417
“The life of him who has risen from the dead is not once again bios, the bio-logical form of our mortal life inside history; it is zoe, new, different, definitive life; life which has stepped beyond the mortal realm of bios and history, a realm which has been surpassed by a greater power… It is also true, of course, that this new life begot itself in history and had to do so, because after all it is there for history, and the Christian message is basically nothing else than the transmission of the testimony that love has here broken through death and thus transformed fundamentally the situation of all of us.” —Joseph Ratzinger (later Pope Benedict XVI), Introduction to Christianity, 1968
“The most important thing is the first proclamation: Jesus Christ has saved you.” —Pope Francis, in the same interview
“We cannot insist only on issues related to abortion, gay marriage and the use of contraceptive methods. This is not possible. I have not spoken much about these things, and I was reprimanded for that. But when we speak about these issues, we have to talk about them in a context. The teaching of the Church, for that matter, is clear and I am a son of the Church, but it is not necessary to talk about these issues all the time.” —Pope Francis, in the same interview
“I see clearly that the thing the Church needs most today is the ability to heal wounds and to warm the hearts of the faithful; it needs nearness, proximity. I see the Church as a field hospital after battle. It is useless to ask a seriously injured person if he has high cholesterol and about the level of his blood sugars! You have to heal his wounds. Then we can talk about everything else…” —Pope Francis, in the same interview
“For the Holy Ghost was promised to the successors of Peter not so that they might, by His revelation, make known some new doctrine, but that, by His assistance, they might religiously guard and faithfully expound the revelation or Deposit of Faith transmitted by the Apostles.” —First Vatican Council (1870)
“Anyone accompanying a pilgrim must walk at the same pace as the pilgrim, not ahead and not lagging behind.” —Pope Francis, Address to the Plenary Session of the Pontifical Council for Social Communications, September 21, Feast of St. Matthew
“In all its phases and at every age, human life is always sacred and always of quality. And not as a matter of faith, but of reason and science!” —Pope Francis, September 20, 2013, to a meeting of Catholic gynecologists in the Vatican
“There are in faith two equally constant truths. One is that man in the state of his creation, or in the state of grace, is exalted above the whole of nature, made like unto God and sharing in his divinity. The other is that in the state of corruption and sin he has fallen from that first state and has become like the beasts… Whence it is clearly evident that man through grace is made like unto God and shares his divinity, and without grace he is treated like the beasts of the field.” —Pascal, Pensees 131 and 434
“Do not be deceived, God is not mocked; for whatever a man sows, that he will also reap.” —Galatians 6:7
“Despair = suffering – meaning.“—Viktor Frankl (1905-1997), the Jewish philosopher and psychologist who developed “Logotherapy” (“meaning therapy”); his equation means that if one is suffering and there is no meaning to the suffering, one loses hope, and ends in utter hopelessness, that is, total despair… from which only meaning (Logos) can save him…
A Controversial Interview
First, a link to the complete text of the Pope’s recent interview with the Civilta Cattolica editor, Father Antonio Spadaro, S.J.: Link.
And this is the first point: the entire interview needs to be read.
The snippets that have been quoted in the press are inadequate. The entire text needs to be read to understand the Pope’s thinking.
Then it becomes clear that Pope Francis is not changing anything at all about Catholic teaching, a teaching centered on the reality of Christ’s redeeming, saving love for sinners (and we are all sinners, most especially so when we think we are no longer), but that his aim and desire is to communicate that teaching in the most effective way possible, given our present context: the post-modern, post-Christian world, and the post-conciliar Church, a half century after the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965).
But even a close reading of the entire text is not be enough. The text also needs to be set in context, and that context is quite complex.
The context is first that of this man and this mind.
Pope Francis is an Argentine, a Jesuit, a man from an Italian Catholic immigrant famaily who had a certain education and formation, a man who had certain experiences of life.
Above all, Francis had a certain, transformative experience of God’s presence, love and forgiveness, in an almost physical way, “descending upon him” (the experience was on September 21, 1953, the Feast of St. Matthew, when Bergoglio was just 16; the 60th anniversary of that experience was yesterday, and, in fact, Pope Francis spoke about this decisive experience again yesterday, something most of the media overlooked).
What does this first context mean?
It means, essentially, that there is a hierarchy, “first” and a “second,” in the Pope’s mind with regard to the faith, with regard to drawing close to God.
That is, that there is a “first” and a “second” with regard to entering into that “higher life” which Joseph Ratzinger refers to in the quote cited at the outset — the life of God, of eternity… the life that death cannot touch or take away, where death has no victory…
That there is a “first step,” as for a baby, and then there are many other steps… and that that first step actually must come first, for the other steps also to come, until the baby walks, then runs…
And this “first,” this “first step” is (very mysteriously)… a grace.
A grace which may be compared to a whisper, a quiet call, a call from a hidden God (“Deus absconditus“). We often refer to this call, by its effect, as a “calling,” a “vocation”…
A grace which may also be like a thunderclap, or a bolt of lightning, as was experienced by St. Paul — who had been an accessory to the murder, by stoning, of St. Stephen; that is, who was guilty of violence against Christians, and so someone who could and had committed grave sins — on the road to Damascus.
A grace which is an actual encounter with… with…
With the Lord, as St. Paul narrates of his experience…
A true meeting, like when one meets another person for a conversation, or to share a joy, or to be comforted in a moment of sorrow…
It would be wrong to confine this moment of grace and encounter to a realm of drama, or to the realm of grand mystical experiences, though in a sense it is all part of a drama, the drama of every soul.
But in Catholic teaching this meeting and encounter may and can occur in absolute silence, with no external manifestation, in a moment of prayer (or not in a moment of prayer), often as the product of a long preparation, and often through and in the sacraments of the Church, beginning with baptism, and continuing with confession and the reception of the Eucharist, and with the type of longing for union with God which is reflected in the language of the Song of Songs.
Pope Francis tells us in this same, controversial interview something of his own experience of this moment of grace in his own life.
“I am a sinner whom the Lord has looked upon,” the Pope told Father Spadaro. And the Pope repeated: “I am one who is looked upon by the Lord. I always felt my motto, Miserando atque Eligendo [By Having Mercy and by Choosing Him], was very true for me.”
Father Spadaro then tells us that the Pope’s episcopal motto is taken from the Homilies of the Venerable Bede, who wrote in his commentary on the Gospel story of the calling of Matthew: “Jesus saw a publican, and since he looked at him with feelings of love and chose him, he said to him, ‘Follow me.’”
The Pope then added: “I think the Latin gerund miserando is impossible to translate in both Italian and Spanish. I like to translate it with another gerund that does not exist: misericordiando [“mercy-ing”].
Then, Pope Francis, Spadaro says, shifted the conversation from his motto and who he is to recollections of walks in Rome(!).
Spadaro writes: “The Pope continues his reflection and says, jumping to another topic: ‘I do not know Rome well. I know a few things. These include the Basilica of St. Mary Major; I always used to go there. I know St. Mary Major, St. Peter’s… but when I had to come to Rome, I always stayed in [the neighborhood of] Via della Scrofa. From there I often visited the Church of St. Louis of France, and I went there to contemplate the painting of The Calling of St. Matthew, by Caravaggio.
“That finger of Jesus, pointing at Matthew. That’s me. I feel like him. Like Matthew.”
Spadaro continues: “Here the Pope becomes determined, as if he had finally found the image he was looking for: ‘It is the gesture of Matthew that strikes me: he holds on to his money as if to say, “No, not me! No, this money is mine.” Here, this is me, a sinner on whom the Lord has turned his gaze. And this is what I said when they asked me if I would accept my election as pontiff.’”
Then the Pope whispers to Spadaro, in Latin, the words that he spoke to the cardinals at the moment he knew he was elected: “I am a sinner, but I trust in the infinite mercy and patience of our Lord Jesus Christ, and I accept in a spirit of penance.”
Caravaggio, The Calling of Saint Matthew (1599-1600), (above) today in the Church of St. Louis of the French near Piazza Navona in Rome; as a bishop and cardinal, Pope Francis, when he came to Rome, would often stop in the Church to look at this painting. Most art critics have maintained that Matthew, the tax collector being called by Jesus, is the old man with the cap and beard pointing his finger at himself; but Pope Francis clearly states that he believes Caravaggio’s Matthew is the young man with his head down looking at his money, and not at Christ, who is calling to him and pointing to him with his finger in a pose reminscent of God the Creator giving life to Adam; in the same way, Christ is about to give life and meaning to Matthew’s human existence.
In my next letter, I will try to comment briefly on other aspects of the context of this interview, aspects that must be taken into consideration to understand what the Pope is saying and why he says what he says.
That is, I will briefly consider those aspects of our world, transformed in recent decades by cultural and technological change, and of our Church, in this post-conciliar period, which have influenced the Pope, and persuaded him that he must raise in new ways the anthropological question, “What is man?” in order to preach the faith in our time.
But for this, preliminary letter, it is perhaps enough to make only one point.
Pope Francis is telling us, in this interview, that he is a sinner. And he is not lying. We are all sinners. It is the human condition. We are fallen.
The members of the Church are not an exclusive club of “non-sinners” who “get it,” looking out upon a vast crowd of sinners, all of whom are lost.
No. Each of us must continue to work out our salvation in fear and trembling.
Our knowledge of Christ and of the catechism is not a shield from sin. If we believed this, we would be gnostics — people who believe that their “special knowledge” saves them, like an esoteric secret society.
And this seems to be a common approach many in the blogosphere are using to “explain” the Pope’s words, his focus on his own sin, his focus on Christ, his relegation for a moment to a “second” place of moral matters which are of very great importance, but which are not of “first” importance.
The first thing this Pope is teaching is that Christians should stop pointing fingers at others and to go deeper within themselves to seek God, and to find Him, to hear Him.
We are all in many ways still in the position of St. Matthew, bent over our money, bent over the duties of our daily lives, bent over even the traditions that bring us comfort, not looking up to meet the gaze of Christ, who calls us to leave behind all…
Forgive us Lord, for we know not what we do.
Pope Francis is calling upon us to look up, once again, toward Christ, and listen to Him, as he calls us to follow him, in simplicity and humility.
(to be continued)